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Daily Inspiration: Meet Elena Gilliam

Today we’d like to introduce you to Elena Gilliam.

Hi Elena, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
As a child, I was very shy and introverted. I knew that I loved music and enjoyed watching old musical movies and “variety” television shows with musical guests as early as Ed Sullivan, then Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, etc. Some of my favorites were Barbara Streisand, Judy Garland (a lot of show entertainers) and of course jazz with Morgana King, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Shirley Bassey and on and on. But I still hardly sang around people. Determined to come out of my shell as I entered College, I became more vocal but didn’t realize that music was my true calling. I majored in Spanish thinking I would become a teacher and counselor, however I realized that it wouldn’t fulfill me and was invited to come out to California by my brother. I moved in 1979 and have been here since. Once here, My interest in singing grew more and I took classes from Orange Coast College.

Of course, I found a job to support myself at the University of California Irvine so these were night classes. My first class was Voice one and I still vividly remember my knees shaking in front of the class while singing. I took other classes and signed up for the Big Band Orchestra. This is where I truly began to come out! It was amazing to sing with an orchestra! I knew this was where I began to study the jazz the legends; Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Carmen McCrae and so many more! I met my future husband at a performance for the Big Band. He was playing guitar for my song and came to me after the show to meet and talk about working together. From there, we formed a group and have been performing together (or apart) for many beautiful years in Southern California.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
The road has been up, down, around the curve, through the woods and over the hills for the past 38 years. My husband began playing at the age of 13, so he was very familiar with gigging when I began. He taught me everything about keeping the music going while we worked day jobs. We started a family and he knew he had to build another career for stability. He became a music therapist and founded a non-profit music and arts-based program for developmentally disabled adults. Creative Identity is now in its 27th year with two locations. I’m so proud of what he has accomplished and contributed to the community.

Meanwhile, I kept working full-time until 2010. Raising our daughter and working definitely made it difficult to work in music, but we did keep it going. After retiring, I began putting more energy into music but also had some caregiving responsibilities for my elderly mother and mother-in-law. Seems I’ve always been a late bloomer, so I kept up with performing as much as possible. I recorded my first CD with my husband George as producer and arranger in 2008. My second was released 10 years later and I’m now working on a 3rd using a symphony orchestra that promises to be memorable!

Just prior to the Covid Pandemic, I was hitting a stride and about to perform in a couple of well-known places. I became pretty downhearted during that time and I’m just beginning to build momentum again. I’m keeping my hopes up and performing at nicer venues right now, working to earn more respect in this crazy business.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I love jazz and performing for those who truly appreciate the music. After singing for so many years, I’ve developed an easy-going style that weaves in and out of powerful moments and more subtle nuances of the songs I sing. I truly enjoy expressing the lyrics and getting the story across to the audience. There are so many songs that I love and so little time to sing them it seems! I believe I have a depth and strength to my voice that sets me apart. I’m known by my fans for singing with enthusiasm on hard-swinging tunes and my emotion and expression with ballads. I love swing tunes! I also love the musicians around me who make the music happen. They carry me through the songs after all. When we connect its magic.

Joking around with the audience and musicians is also part of my shows. When you’re at my show, we’re all there to have a good time!

In 2016 both my husband and I were nominated as Jazz Living Legends by the Jazz Living Legend Inc. in Los Angeles. It was a very proud moment for us and it exemplyfied the work we do in the community and our music. My other professional interests are volunteering for social programs, working with young jazz performers and producing showcases for Art & Jazz. Performance has done a lot for me in terms of getting me out of my shell.

I was very introverted as a youth and performing helped me blossom personally. I developed performance workshops years ago and volunteered with local non-profits to help with providing an outlet for troubled youth. They relate very well to music and performing and I’d like to think it helped foster personal growth.

Working with young jazz artists is key to ensuring that jazz continues as an important part of American history. It will also evolve with performers who appreciate the history and make it into something new. I’ve help Young Lions of Jazz concerts and hope to continue next year. I’m also faculty at SoCal Jazz Academy here in my county and provide vocal coaching.

Art & Jazz with Elena Gilliam is a virtual showcase where I display artwork from performing artists and artwork that is jazz oriented from fine artists across the country. As a part of a Jazz Residency at the Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center, I work with them to produce the show and provide music for live art exhibits.

How do you think about happiness?
Being surrounded by loved ones makes me the happiest. I’ve learned that the people in your life are the most important. They are here to share in what you do and how you live. Music is a part of who I am and having loved ones to share it with is an amazing feeling. After a good show, I feel the happiest. I’ve worked with my husband for many years and having him to share in the “glory” of a great night of music is a blessing. It’s the most meaningful feeling.

Also, watching our daughter spread her wings in the filed of entertainment is very exciting. She’s an actor and has more nerve and energy to make things happen than we ever did. It’s just amazing watching her grow in the field, but also sometimes heartbreaking when she falls short of what she wants. But I have faith that she’ll do very well!

Recording music is wonderful and I’m in the middle of the best recording of my life right now. I’m working with Producers to make a recording with a symphony orchestra and jazz combo. It’s very exciting and I can’t wait until it comes together! I feel so blessed right now!

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Image Credits
S. House Donald Dean Sr.

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